Friday, 21 January 2011

In these dark and uncertain times...invest in wine

Picture courtesy of Agne27 via Flickr
Pétrus is recognized as the King of Claret. Or perhaps it should be the Queen, as it was served at the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth and Philip in 1947. This is a wine coveted by millionaires as, starting at around £2,500 a bottle, it is unlikely to be served at most of our dinner parties. What, we wonder, will be the principal wine served at the nuptials of Prince William and bride Kate?

There is enormous cachet attached to Pétrus, partly due to its small production, around 30,000 bottles, from its 30-acre family-owned estate in Pomerol, near Bordeaux. The entire harvest can be completed in just half a day, allowing the owners to pick at optimum ripeness. The virtuous circle of high prices and small quantities mean that attention can be lavished on each drop of the precious wine, from vine to bottle.

Every vintage of this wine is acclaimed as a classic, but some are raised to a pinnacle of achievement, such as the 2000, rated a perfect 100 points by Robert Parker, and currently selling at auction for around £4,000 a bottle. Apparently the secret to its success is, of course, that peculiarly French notion: terroir. 
Terroir is a shorthand to describe the unique combination of climate, aspect and soil on which the vines are grown. Pétrus sits on a clay “boutonnière” (or buttonhole, a poetic image) above the Jurassic limestone-based gravels of surrounding vineyards. The combination of moisture-retentive clay and free-draining gravel makes for a perfect environment for the Merlot grapes which make up 95% of the blend of Pétrus.

Bordeaux wines are hot tips for investors, particularly with the increasing Far East, especially Chinese, market demand. Wine investment houses report that Châteaux Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild were the best-performing commodities in 2009. Fine wines generally produced a return of 10.9%, the same as crude oil, and certainly out-performed the UK property market with returns of 8.2% AGR.
Lafite especially seems to have a particular appeal for the Chinese, with the result that its wines are trading at up to twice the price of the other four Bordeaux first growths, a kind of fine wine premiership. Mouton-Rothschild is famous for commissioning a different artist to create a unique artwork to adorn the label of its “grand vin” each year – and it is surely no coincidence that, this year, it has chosen Chinese artist, Xu Lei, to complete the task.

The Bordeaux wine trade shamelessly talks up each vintage and is famous for announcing the “vintage of the decade” at least three times every decade and even talked of 2005 as the “vintage of the century”. Are they equipped with crystal balls, we wonder? 
In recent years the UK wine-buying public has reacted to Bordeaux hyperbole and high prices by buying less. The Bordelais, however, care not a jot as they can sell pretty much all they can produce, no matter what the price it seems, to the burgeoning East Asian market. 
There are a number of Bordeaux 2010 vintage tastings over the coming months at London venues which the two Heathers are pleased to be attending and we shall no doubt report back ecstatically, as we are probably due for another “vintage of the decade”. Unfortunately we are not invited to the upcoming auction sale of composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber's personal fine wine collection at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The decision to sell in Hong Kong affirms this city’s newfound status as fine wine capital of the world. More fine wine was sold here than in the top auction houses in London and New York combined. (One has to question why he is selling off all his goodies – has he hit hard times? Perhaps Love Never Dies is indeed on its last legs!)
Just in case you are beginning to feel like you are reading the FT rather than The Surrey Advertiser we will come back down to the Surrey hills with a bump and let you in on the best Bordeaux buys available locally and at rather more modest prices than the exalted Pétrus.

You will be delighted to hear that one of our favourite locals stocks an excellent example of the 2005 vintage for you to try at the right opportunity. Château La Mission, Lalande de Pomerol 2005, £24.99 from Taurus Wines, Bramley is big, beefy and concentrated – sounds like Bovril, but be assured it tastes much better. Like Churchill, it has a distinct whiff of the cigar box about it. Don't discount this wine as too serious, as it's a good example of the right region in the right year and will be recognized as a bargain by all Surrey claret lovers.

Not to be sniffed at (metaphorically only) is L'Orangerie de Château Carignan 2008. The influencial critic, Robert Parker, included this wine is his “50 best value buys” in Bordeaux 2005 and gave this vintage 86 points. Mostly merlot and from just around the corner from St Emilion and Pomerol – at just £9.99 you can't go wrong . Taurus wines of Bramley stocks this one too and owner Rupert refers to it as their "house Claret".

We are fortunate to have some great independent wine stores in Surrey, and Ben Watkins of The Guildford Wine Company in Shalford certainly qualifies. Ben tells us that Bordeaux is selling at a rate of 3/1 against other French wines. His popular La Tuilerie du Puy 2006, £9.99 sells like hot cakes. It is an elegant, classy claret with a merlot suppleness which softens the rather stern tannins found in many wines of this genre. Ben’s bargain Bordeaux from a brilliant year is La Tour L’Aspic, Pauillac 2005 at £26.99. The name may suggest aspic jelly, but the wine itself is a firm, well-structured and masterful wine for drinking now, preferably with some time to let it breathe. If you have the patience, lay it down – it will continue to improve over the next five to ten years.

If you still think even these suggestions are expensive then consider the truism – only death is free, and that costs you your life!!!

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